Modern Jerusalem Makes a Powerful Play for the Meetings World

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No one can depict Jerusalem’s transition into the modern world better than Yoram Amir, an artist inspired by the city in which he was born and raised. As historic buildings make way for newer models, Amir fights hard to preserve his beloved city. His weathered skin details the countless days he’s braved the hot desert sun to pick through sites where ancient structures once stood. As owner of Story & Tower Museum, Amir has created a refuge for the architectural relics he finds. His own artwork also is displayed in the museum—a collection of mixed-media pieces using historic pictures combined with recent photographs that show how Jerusalem’s landscape has changed since he was a boy.

Explore the gallery and it’s clear: The Jerusalem you may have read about in holy books is not the city that exists today. Storied buildings have been demolished and replaced with modern structures; high-tech companies have built headquarters here; and academia is booming with the rise of the biomedical industry. “You can feel the cultural renaissance Jerusalem is going through,” says Michal Shalem, chief of staff to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. As the centerpiece of 3,000 years of world history, Jerusalem is now rebranding itself as a high-tech destination, a tourism hot spot and an attractive convention city.

Modern Jerusalem CVBBefore Mayor Barkat was elected in 2008, Jerusalem’s tourism market equated to that of a third-world country, says Ilanit Melchior, director of tourism at the Jerusalem CVB. In fact, the CVB didn’t exist until 2015.

Barkat spent 15 years in the technology sector as chairman for Check Point, a cybersecurity software company touted as one of the most successful Israeli companies of all time. It wasn’t until he came into office that tourism took a turn for the better. “To bring more tourism, we need to bring more conferences and change our infrastructure,” says the mayor, noting he’d like to see the city’s number of annual tourists grow from 3.25 million to 10 million by 2023.

[caption id="attachment_34488" align="alignright" width="300"]Modern Jerusalem CVB Ben Yehuda StreetDowntown's Ben Yehuda Street doubles as a pedestrian mall and hangout spot for tourists and locals.[/caption]

After extensive research, Jerusalem’s government established a five-year economic plan to grow Israel’s capital city. “I believe that running a city is like running a corporation,” says Melchior, who came from a corporate background before working with Barkat to launch the CVB. “If you show the stakeholders you’re good enough, you can push whatever you want forward,” she adds. When Melchior started, the tourism spending allowance was less than $1 million per year. Now that annual budget is $50 million, and a CVB providing a one-stop shop to planners has formed. The city also sets aside grant money as an incentive to bring international planners to Jerusalem, giving roughly $20,000 to eligible groups.

Since talks to form a CVB began in 2012, conventions in Jerusalem have increased by a whopping 215 percent. “Last year we had the best year ever from the American market to Jerusalem,” says Amir Halevi, director of the Israel Ministry of TourismThe city attracted 41 international groups in 2015 and in 2016 hosted big-name events like Forbes Under 30 Summit and Wikimedia Hackathon. "People think of [Jerusalem] as this historical place," says Cathi Culbertson, vice president of event marketing and conferences at Forbes, "but it’s amazing how modern it is."

Melchior admits that getting the word out about Jerusalem as a meetings destination is the CVB’s biggest challenge. “When I say ‘Jerusalem’ [to international planners], their eyes are being opened,” says Melchior. “They dream about [meeting in Jerusalem] and look at it like crown jewelry,” she says. “But for some reason, they don’t come here. … My job is to make this vision come true.”

As more international events flock to the city, planners are hearing the buzz about the modern Jerusalem and putting it on their radar. “It’s not about the 3,000 years of history. It’s about now, and the most important thing is it’s about the future,” says Melchior.

A continual rise in Jerusalem’s infrastructure is a must for Barkat to reach his goal of 10 million annual tourists over the next several years. Developments driving Jerusalem’s increasing popularity as a meetings destination include a high-speed train connecting Tel Aviv to Jerusalem expected to run by March 2018 and a new terminal at Ben Gurion International Airport, a 40-minute drive from the Holy City.

Long-term construction on Jerusalem’s City Entrance Project (also referred to as the “New Face of Modern Jerusalem” project) will transform the city’s skyline. There’s no word yet on when the development will be completed, but it’s said to bring a proposed 13 skyscrapers to the city’s business district, expand the ICC Jerusalem International Convention Center from nearly 130,000 square feet of meeting space to a reported 3.5 million square feet and add an estimated 2,000 hotel rooms to the city’s current 10,700.

Modern Jerusalem CVB It may come as a shock for a city dating back three millennia, but Jerusalem is making a name for itself as one of the top tech cities on the globe. Israel’s reputation as Startup Nation began in 2009 when “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer was published. The country has more startups per capita than anywhere else in the world and, in 2015, Jerusalem was named the No. 1 global city to develop a high-tech community by Entrepreneur.

Today, more than 500 startups call Jerusalem home. These companies are not only playing a part in modernizing the city; they also have a hand in its meetings business.

Modern Jerusalem CVBTake Jon Medved, CEO of OurCrowd, who came to Jerusalem from the United States to start his now multimillion-dollar crowdfunding company. Medved plans OurCrowd’s Global Investor Summit, an annual conference held in Jerusalem for international investors to meet with local entrepreneurs. Launched nearly three years ago with 800 people in attendance, the summit grew to 3,000 people this year at ICC Jerusalem International Convention Center.

“The tech element in Jerusalem is critical for any conference,” says Medved, noting the production value at the convention center felt like what you’d find at the annual Las Vegas staple CES. “Whatever you’re doing, technology better be part of it,” he adds.

With this in mind, the CVB created what it calls an Innovation Package catered to a group’s needs. The package includes tablets with 3G data attendees can carry to stay connected during their time in Jerusalem. (Don’t bother buying an international data plan as it pairs to smartphones as well.) The tablets come with customized real-time polling for speakers to interact with the audience, digital conference schedules and a feedback option that goes live as the event concludes.

“We’re sending a message to the world that Jerusalem is an interruptive, innovative destination,” says Melchior about the city, where there are more than 350 research and development centers for companies such as General Electric Co., Ford Motor Co. and Johnson & Johnson. Jerusalem is also where Intel designs 70 percent of its chips worldwide, and home to Teva, the largest generic pharmaceutical company on the globe, as well as Mobileye, producer of the world’s leading technology for self-driving cars.

Modern Jerusalem CVBThere’s no overlooking Israel’s history of geopolitical and religious conflict. International planners who haven’t experienced the city firsthand are often hesitant to book—a concern the CVB is prepared to address. “We aren’t hiding,” says Melchior. “We know there’s a question of security.”

[caption id="attachment_34486" align="alignright" width="300"]Modern Jerusalem Old City Jerusalem Jerusalem CVBIsraeli soldiers pray at the Western Wall in Old City Jerusalem[/caption]

Working closely with the Jerusalem CVB, the Israel Ministry of Tourism provides the Safety Net procedure, an insurance policy to protect conference organizers in the event of a crisis. “We want you to feel safe,” says Halevi. “You can make the decision to have a conference here two years from now, and if any geopolitical situation happens [before then], we will reimburse your [promotional] expenses.”

Available to international conferences happening between 2017 and 2020, the Safety Net procedure expenses 75 percent of marketing and advertising costs for a conference canceled due to geopolitical crises. If the conference is postponed instead of canceled, the Ministry of Tourism will cover 25 to 50 percent of promotional costs.

“There are a lot of places in the world that are not safe anymore,” says Melchior. Turning its negative past into a positive, Israel is an expert in crisis management. Cities like Paris and Istanbul look to Israel for guidance on how to handle recent acts of terror, return to business as usual and be better prepared in the future, adds Melchior.

Modern Jerusalem CVB

Despite its transition into a high-tech, modern city, Jerusalem will always be holy ground rooted in history. It’s what makes the city unlike any other, and why 80 percent of Israel’s tourists head to Jerusalem for religious reasons or not.

[caption id="attachment_34500" align="alignright" width="200"]Modern Jerusalem CVB Judean DesertAttendees at Jerusalem Encounter explored the Judean Desert via camel, just as the three wise men did for Jesus' birth.[/caption]

“For attendees, Jerusalem gives context and culture to the holy books they believe in,” says Michael Mistretta, co-founder and COO of the Fellowship of Israel Related Ministries. Mistretta and his team organize Jerusalem Encounter, an 11-day religious tour and conference bringing 750 young Christians and pastors from around the world to experience the Bible firsthand and build relationships with Jerusalem natives. In 2016, it was held at The Pavilion (a movie theater-turned-performing arts center) and guests stayed at a mix of hotels like David Citadel, Hotel Yehuda and Dan Panorama, plus hostels.

“Our heart with Jerusalem Encounter is to bring new Christians who haven’t been to Israel to encounter the land and the people,” says Mistretta. Last year’s inaugural event resulted in an in-depth tour of the city and its surrounding areas.

Attendees visited the Sea of Galilee, one day boarding a boat to take part in a worship service on the water and another day participating in a giveback opportunity to clean up trash littering the shorelines. They then ventured to the Judean Desert to see King Herod’s Masada and float in the Dead Sea. Other activities included a visit to the Israel Museum to see a scale model of what Jerusalem looked like in Jesus’ day, as well as a tour of the Old City and morning devotionals on top of the Mount of Olives.

Jerusalem Encounter is a prime example of what tours in the city can look like for groups of any religious affiliation, as well as a reflection of what makes it a one-of-a-kind destination. It’s the only place in the world where you can follow the path Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion (Via Dolorosa) or see the rock where Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven (Dome of the Rock).

“Jerusalem will [always] have its own identity… but it will also focus on the future and continue to innovate,” says Melchior. Mix history, religious significance and the fact that it continues to keep up with the rest of the world in innovation and technology, and it’s safe to say Jerusalem has a bright future in meetings.

Modern Jerusalem CVB Jerusalem Venues

*Read a first-person account of Jerusalem CVB's first-ever FAM trip for meeting professionals here.

*Find Israeli cuisines to incorporate into your conference menu here.

*Get a break down of the top religious spots to hit in Old City Jerusalem here.

Photo credits: Noem Chen; Mor; FIRM